In Italy, a Right-Wing Spin Doctor Repents
How Silvio Berlusconi’s top propagandist become one of Matteo Salvini’s toughest critics.
When I asked Giuliano Ferrara what he thinks of Italian politics today, he shook his head. This government, he said, “is the living proof that Italy’s democracy has a tendency to destroy itself.” He came up with a popular moniker for Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party: “Il Truce,” a hard-to-translate label that conveys a mixture of Mussolini, cruelty, uncanniness, and a lack of personal hygiene. Since the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s League party formed a cabinet that was sworn in in June, Ferrara has relentlessly criticized it from the front page of Il Foglio, the highbrow daily newspaper that he founded in 1996 and edited until 2015, when he formally retired. (He still writes almost daily.)
It’s not unusual for Italian journalists to show utter contempt for this coalition, arguably Western Europe’s first fully populist government. What makes Ferrara stand out, however, is that he used to be one of Silvio Berlusconi’s top spin doctors.
Throughout the Berlusconi era—from 1994 to 2011—when the tycoon-turned-politician dominated Italian politics, Ferrara waged a series of culture wars through Il Foglio, which until recently was owned by the Berlusconi family. The paper campaigned relentlessly against multiculturalism and political correctness, often setting the tone of Italy’s cultural debate on Islam and terrorism.
Ferrara was to Berlusconi what Steve Bannon is to Donald Trump: a media-savvy, hyperpartisan intellectual providing ideological ammunition for a right-wing leader. The comparison makes him cringe. Ferrara sees Bannon as a “conformist,” he said. He isn’t a big fan of Trump’s either.
But Ferrara was instrumental in facilitating Berlusconi’s rise and keeping him in power. He provided an intellectual framework melding free market economics and pro-Americanism for a nascent Italian right that otherwise lacked any ideological content. Many analysts consider Berlusconi a precursor to today’s right-wing populists. A flamboyant, gaffe-prone media personality who included post-fascists in his governments and enjoyed a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin and Muammar al-Qaddafi, he in many ways anticipated the era of Trump and Salvini.
So why, then, has Berlusconi’s chief ideologue became one of Salvini’s toughest critics? Some argue that Trump’s election prompted this political realignment. As for Ferrara, he denies that he has changed his mind or grown scared of the political movement he helped create.
Ferrara was born in Rome in 1952 into an elite Communist family. His father was a journalist at L’Unità, the Italian Communist Party’s official newspaper, and his mother was an advisor to Palmiro Togliatti, the legendary party leader. As a young child, he spent three years in Moscow.
In postwar Italy, belonging to the Communist intelligentsia meant belonging to the cultural elite. During Mussolini’s regime, the Communists were instrumental in leading the resistance. For the following four decades, the Communist Party, the largest in Western Europe, represented the only true opposition to the Christian Democrats, the corrupt and Kafkaesquely inefficient party that ruled the country uninterrupted from 1946 to 1992.
Ferrara says he’s still an admirer of Karl Marx, albeit not of Marxism. “People should still read Marx. He taught us a lot about [what] this world is made of,” he said. As a young man, Ferrara followed in his father’s footsteps in journalism and party activism.
In the early 1980s, he broke with the Communist Party after a fight over the organization of a public event. He joined the Socialists, which was a major shift. In the 1980s, the Italian Socialist Party was a centrist party allied with the Christian Democrats. Ferrara became an advisor to Bettino Craxi, the man who moved the party to the right and became Italy’s first Socialist prime minister in 1983, ruling in coalition with the Christian Democrats.
In 1992, a massive corruption scandal took the Socialists and the Christian Democrats by storm: Ferrara’s patron was forced to flee the country to avoid arrest—Craxi died in Tunisia in 2000—and soon both parties were gone for good.
Two years later, in 1994, Berlusconi entered politics to fill the void, and Ferrara was one of the first to join him, becoming one of his most prominent advisors. He briefly served as minister of parliamentary affairs in Berlusconi’s first, short-lived cabinet from 1994 to 1995. Soon after, Il Foglio was born.
Ferrara was part of a wider trend in Italy that saw former Communists morphing into Berlusconi supporters, from the senior politician Sandro Bondi to the prominent TV journalist Paolo Liguori. Some of them were just jumping on the bandwagon, but others underwent a soul-searching process after the fall of the Berlin Wall, coupled with the 1992 corruption scandal, which had shaken their belief system to the core.
On the pages of Il Foglio, Ferrara waged campaigns defending the free market, military interventionism, and against sexual moralism—subjects that were particularly dear, for different reasons, to Berlusconi. Ferrara said he never thought of himself as a “key-ideologue” to Berlusconi’s but rather as a “friendly intellectual fighting a flanking war” for him.
Islam became a hot topic in Italy in the early 2000s as a result of 9/11, the Second Palestinian Intifada, and growing immigration from North African countries. As an admirer of Oriana Fallaci, the formerly left-leaning cult author who wrote an incendiary anti-Islam pamphlet after 9/11, Ferrara has often framed Islam as a an “ideology of war.” A self-described “theocon,” or a neoconservative inspired by religion, Ferrara also championed the idea of the Christian identity of the West and popularized Samuel P. Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory in Italy.
Il Foglio was ideologically open, however, and hosted a diverse group of writers, ranging from staunch liberals to Milo Yiannopoulos-like reactionaries arguing that women shouldn’t have access to education. (Full disclosure: I briefly worked at Il Foglio as a young intern for two months in 2003.)
A skillful provocateur, Ferrara has himself flirted with reactionary ideas, albeit never fully embracing or endorsing them. Last year, he went as far as to write that demographic replacement theories deserved to be “taken seriously,” echoing the “great replacement” rhetoric of the controversial French writer Renaud Camus, adding that immigration will shake Europe’s “historic and biologic identity.”
Ferrara’s newspaper was never Italy’s equivalent of Breitbart. It was rarely vulgar and often sophisticated in its arguments; if anything, it resembled the scholarly and militantly nostalgic U.S. Catholic journal First Things. But Il Foglio was far more influential. It never had many readers, but half of them were editors and policymakers.
What made Il Foglio unique was that, in its heyday, it enjoyed an influence on liberals. “Left-leaning commentators were reading it, even if they often disagreed with what it said. They admired Giuliano, loved debating with him, and in some cases even had an inferiority complex,” said Gad Lerner, one of Italy’s best-known liberal intellectuals and a longtime “frenemy” of Ferrara’s.
In a way, Lerner said, Ferrara “was speaking to the left even more than he spoke to the right”—deconstructing liberals’ certainties became his specialty. This leverage ended up influencing the cultural climate across the political spectrum. If Il Foglio constantly declared that Islam was bad, even the left came to accept that saying so was no longer scandalous, despite disagreeing with the argument.
Many observers would have expected that, as someone who spent two decades attacking multiculturalism and Islam, Ferrara would be happy with the overtly xenophobic party in the driver’s seat of the current Italian government. But he is not.
These days, Berlusconi’s former ideologue is constantly attacking Salvini for his shameless racism. In his editorials, Ferrara has called Salvini a “xenophobe,” a “demagogue,” and a “furbo fesso” (cunning idiot). On Twitter, he has also compared Salvini to Mussolini for his war on migrant rescue ships. Ferrara sees the work of nongovernmental organizations to save migrants at sea as simply “heroic.”
He claims to see no contradiction between his past and his present, however. For Ferrara, it comes down to a distinction between upholding democratic institutions and attacking them. Berlusconi, he insists, was never a precursor to today’s populists: “He might have anticipated Trump in his tones, but the substance was completely different. I saw in Berlusconi a legitimization of the political order. Trump and Salvini are the destroyer of that order.”
Ferrara insists that Salvini and the Five Star movement, far from being the consequences of Berlusconism, are the product of anti-Berlusconism: It was the anti-Berlusconi camp’s anti-corruption rhetoric, he argues, that fomented the anger of the masses against a leadership perceived as decadent and dishonest.
As for his views on immigration and ethnic replacement, he represents a strange amalgamation of views—a sort of compassionate identitarian in contrast to the overtly and often violently nativist identitarians of the far-right. “One can believe that Islam is a threat and still believe that it’s not a good reason to let Muslims drown in the Mediterranean Sea,” he argued.
Lerner, his longtime rival, is unconvinced by the argument that Berlusconi didn’t pave the way for Salvini, but he does believe Ferrara has undergone a political conversion. “Giuliano would never admit he has changed his mind,” he said. “But he did.” The turning point, Lerner claims, was Trump. “He spent decades playing with the idea of breaking the rules, and of all a sudden he realized that what you get is a broken society.” Ferrara likes a strongman, in short, only when he sees in him a bulwark against barbarity. Salvini and Trump, on the other hand, to him represent barbarity incarnate.
Ferrara’s worldview comes down to his deep knowledge of European history and his mistrust of human nature when left without a moral and political guidance. He’s well aware of—and frightened by—the fragility of the social order. Accordingly, Ferrara’s primary distinction is not between left and right or between closed and open societies. Instead, he judges leaders according to whether they guarantee the stability of the social contract.
He sees the world, and Europe especially, as a perennial battle between stable civilization and anarchic barbarity. When Berlusconi entered politics nearly 25 years ago, Ferrara saw in him a guardian of a political order that was in danger of crumbling. Similarly, Ferrara became a fan of Pope Benedict’s Church because he saw in it an island of stability and guidance for a continent on the verge of an identity crisis.
With Trump’s election to the White House and, later, with right-wing populism on the rise across Europe, Ferrara has been forced to confront the ugliest face of the populist wave that he—consciously or not—helped set in motion. And he has decided to fight back.